20 December 2013


Movies and TV shows often feature NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, which has its headquarters dug deep into Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado to protect it against nuclear attack. Though apparently the Big Board isn't as cool as the one in WarGames, it is a real place.

In December 1955, when it was actually called CONAD, Colonel Harry Shoup was ranking officer when the phone rang. The phone — the red phone that you really don't want to ring, on your watch or any other time. He answers the phone, and has a very confusing conversation. The voice on the other end of the phone is asking a vexing question.

“Can I talk to Santa Claus?”

It turns out that the local Sears has placed an ad in the paper with a phone number so kids can call and talk to Santa. There's a misprint in the ad, and so NORAD has kids calling in every day. One can imagine that first call. Col. Shoup may have let slip who he was and what his job was. The kid wants to know about Santa, and NORAD tracks anything that enters US airspace ...

In 1955, the big board was a sheet of glass with a map, marked up with grease pencils. To help answer the incoming calls, the CONAD team marked the position of a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. The following year, the folks at CONAD preëmpted any confusion by changing the number of the Red Phone and running their own ad with the number of the Santa Phone.

Mind you, these folks are government employees. Their job is to look for Russian planes. So they're doing this unpaid, on their time off. And every year they got more callers.

Needless to say, as aerospace technology advances, so does NORAD's Santa operation. And of course there's a website. A few years back there was a great video of the Santa tracking systems test done as they tracked Santa leaving the North Pole to attend the Hollywood Christmas Parade which is evidently lost to the ages, but they've recorded quite a few clips featuring deadpan military personnel describing their Santa tracking efforts.


Reya Mellicker said...

This post reminds me of your dream of being a space marine. Were you wearing a red suit? I might be making that up.

Jonathan Korman said...

I can neither confirm nor deny any Santa-related activities at that facility, nor can I confirm or deny any involvement on my own part with any Santa-related activities that may have occurred.